In an ultraconservative Bolivian Mennonite colony during the back half of the 00’s, over 100 women and girls, ranging in age from 3 to 65, were sedated and sexually assaulted in the night by a group of colony men. When the women would complain of waking up bloodied and bruised, the elders dismissed it initially as “wild female imagination” and then as acts of the Devil. In the end, some of the men were caught in the act and the elders finally called the Police. This real-life event was the inspiration for Miriam Toews’ acclaimed 2018 novel Women Talking, which in turn formed the basis for this film, adapted and directed by Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Stories We Tell).
The movie picks up after the perpetrators have been arrested. The men of the colony have traveled to town to bail them out, a round trip that should take about two days. They have told the women that while they are away, they should find it in themselves to forgive their attackers or face excommunication and expulsion from the community. So the women conclude that their options boil down to either doing what the men demand, staying and fighting, or leaving, thus they conduct a vote which ends in a tie amongst the latter two options. A small group of families is then elected to talk over the merits of each and make a decision for all of them, and this debate makes up the majority of the film.
With its focus being on a small group, sequestered away arguing their sides of a fateful decision there are strong parallels to 12 Angry Men, though the subject matter and point of view firmly differentiate the two. The treatment of the women by (most) of the men in their lives and their lack of agency in said treatment make this particularly resonant in the era of #MeToo, but it’s their struggle with deciding how to respond to the immeasurable cruelty they have been forced to endure that makes it particularly poignant. They worry that if they fight back they will lose and their conditions will only worsen, but at the same time they feel sadness about leaving their homes and some of their loved ones behind while also worrying about how they will survive in a world that they know almost nothing about. These mirror some of the very real concerns that women living in abusive relationships also weigh over in their minds when deciding their own fate and make the impassioned arguments truly hit home.
Polley’s direction isn’t flashy, but the strong script means it doesn’t need to be. While the confined location of much of the action gives it a play-like quality, images of the wide vistas outside help to open up the proceedings and give it a more cinematic feel, though the decision to cast a grayish tint over everything is an odd one. The cast, featuring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, and others are all sensational, as is Ben Whishaw as a timid schoolteacher who has stayed behind and agreed to take minutes of the meeting for the women. They all perfectly convey the complicated emotions coursing through the characters as a result of their abuse and the weighted decision that lays before them. This is a thoughtfully made film that couldn’t be more timely, that will keep viewers riveted and stick with them long after it’s ended. ★★★★★
rated pg-13 for mature thematic content including sexual assault, bloody images, and some strong language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor